Arguing for property rights and food security amid rising egg prices at the store, Catoosa County residents supporting backyard chickens brought an over-capacity crowd to Tuesday night's County Commission meeting.
The meeting was the final one before the commission holds a public forum and then a likely vote on the issue, Commissioner Chuck Harris said. The commission will hold the public hearing Feb. 21, with citizen comments preceding the commissioners' discussion and potential vote.
"It's been a year of chickens," Harris said in a phone interview about the meeting he called long and tedious.
Catoosa County Board of Commissioners meetings are held at 6 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of every month at the county's administration building, 800 Lafayette St., Ringgold.
Supporters of backyard chickens referenced everything from the high price of eggs to the writings of the country's Founding Fathers. Freedom means allowing things you don't agree with to happen, Ringgold resident Jimmy Gray said in his comments at the meeting.
Several wore T-shirts showing a chicken and reading, "Don't tread on me," a reference to the Revolutionary-era Gadsden flag that usually features a rattlesnake. One supporter brought a chicken named Dolly, positioning her outside the meeting in front of an American flag.
A draft ordinance released Jan. 24 by the county's Planning Commission included rules on raising chickens in a residential zone. It also touched on issues like recreational vehicles and hobby sawmills. Harris said more research needs to be done on why certain regulations were included, including rules covering RV parking.
Harris said the draft ordinance isn't posted online, but people can obtain a copy by calling the county's Planning & Zoning Department at 706-965-3787. Harris said the draft ordinance still needs work.
Adrianne Kittle said at the hearing that there are already laws in place to regulate animals that are a nuisance or are running loose -- and that includes chickens as well as other animals like dogs. Many things are already restricted in the residential zoning, she said, including a swimming pool, tool shed or children's playset -- but those things aren't being scrutinized.
The county should not be acting like a homeowners association, Kittle said.
We are living in perilous times, Kittle went on to say, and it (the chicken issue) is being perpetuated by the government, not by issues that would actually exist otherwise.
Until last year, the county pursued neighborhood complaints about backyard chickens in residential areas. Officials were using existing codes that did not specifically address chickens, and freedom-loving chicken advocates cried foul. The county eventually put a moratorium in place on enforcement until a backyard chicken ordinance could be drawn up.
The debate has been called the "chicken wars" by those engaged in it.
In the Planning Commission's draft ordinance, female chickens would be allowed -- but not roosters. For residential lots an acre or smaller, three hens would be allowed, and another chicken would be allowed for every additional 21,780 square feet (half an acre).
The draft ordinance also had requirements for an enclosed coop and screening from neighbors by way of landscaping or a fence. Backyard chicken supporters said the rules were too restrictive, and more hens are needed to have enough eggs to regularly feed a family.
Commissioner Vanita Hullander said she thinks the decision needs to be made Feb. 21, but she also said the draft isn't finished and there's more to be decided. It's hard to please everybody, she said in a phone call Wednesday, but she said she's gotten more input from people against backyard chickens than supporters.
People opposed to backyard chickens tell her they're hesitant to speak out because the issue has gotten so heated, Hullander said. It's been even tougher to find a solution, she said, because of how much the issue has blown up on social media. Someone even rented a billboard claiming chickens might be outlawed, she said, but she spoke about more nuance in the issue.
"It's sad that people can't sit down and resolve things," Hullander said.
The county's nuisance laws could be used to regulate improper chicken keeping, but Hullander said some people would still be afraid to anger their neighbors. For a nuisance complaint, three neighbors have to issue a formal complaint, she said, but anonymous complaints can be accepted under some circumstances.
Hullander said a possible compromise could be to grandfather in the chickens currently owned and require a privacy fence so chickens can't be seen or roam neighborhoods. The commission has to make a decision for the 70,000 residents of the county -- not just the few hundred people who are vocal about an issue, she said.
In a comment on Harris' social media page about the issue, Norma McSpadden-Painter said she is against having hobby sawmills and backyard chickens -- unless someone has a large plot of land.
"But not everyone works 9 to 5, so setting hours with only first shift employees in mind for noise ordinance doesn't work either when thinking about rules for rooster and sawmill noise," McSpadden-Painter said.
The loss of property values is a slippery slope, she said, and that needs to be considered.
Samantha Kern Leslie is a farmer with 30 acres of land who said she understands the desire of her friends who want to have food security by raising chickens. There could have been better education about this issue from the county -- for example how homeowners associations will still override county laws -- but the Ringgold resident said both sides have "dug in their heels."
"It's an issue that could benefit some, but it needs to be agreed on in the middle," Leslie said in an online message. "This (compromise) is something that has not happened, and I attribute some of it to the past behaviors of both sides, especially the commissioner side."
In a social media post on Harris' page, her suggestion was: eight birds and no roosters with a fenced-in backyard.
Contact Andrew Wilkins at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.